According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Canon Law is a code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church. In the Latin or Western Church, the governing code is the 1983 Code of Canon Law, a revision of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.” It is a living document that has consistently changed and evolved over time. For example, the requirement that women must wear veils during Mass no longer exists.
Many people wonder what protections exist under canon law for employees of parishes, parochial schools, Catholic medical centers, hospitals, social service agencies, and other institutions. The reality is that the protections are minimal, and mostly inferential, drawn from the principles in the Canons quoted below. However, canon law experts have also said that for LGBT employees, and for allies engaged in LGBT issues, even these minimal protections do not apply. Because any termination, refusal to hire, refusal to provide benefits to legal spouses, or coverage of gender confirmation services would be based on what Church officials consider “disordered” behavior, any attempt to apply for redress under canon law would be automatically rejected. The “internal forum” issue of homosexuality or gender identity would override other considerations.
This is not to say that we believe that employees who have experienced discrimination should not attempt to apply canon law to their situations. We believe that canon law should be applied equally to every person and believe that we need to continue to address issues of inequity. It is important to note that Canon Law specifically states that all laity (the “Christian faithful”) must be treated with equality and dignity, with consideration to each individual’s own condition. With this in mind, the laity have a right to open communication with their pastors and other church leaders, including making known their opinions on matters that concern the Church, especially when they hold expertise in certain areas. Importantly, Canon Law forbids anyone from coercing another person into choosing a certain state of life, from violating another person’s right to privacy, or from harming another person’s reputation. On the same token, Canon Law states that all have a duty and right to work, especially in ways that further the Church’s mission to bring the Gospel to all people.
We encourage people interested in discussing their situation with a canon lawyer to visit Canon Law Professionals, LLC to find someone who may be available to speak with you.
Finally, it is vital that we remember that law and justice are not always the same thing. What is just and moral is for employees of Catholic institutions who are doing their job well should be treated with respect and not discriminated against because of who they are, whom they love, or what they believe.
Canon Law on the dignity of all people:
Can. 208 From their rebirth in Christ, there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ according to each one’s own condition and function.
Canon Law on the duties of the laity:
Can. 209 §2. With great diligence they are to fulfill the duties which they owe to the universal Church and the particular church to which they belong according to the prescripts of the law.
Can. 211 All the Christian faithful have the duty and right to work so that the divine message of salvation more and more reaches all people in every age and in every land.
Can. 222 §1. The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers.
§2. They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.
Can. 223 §1. In exercising their rights, the Christian faithful, both as individuals and gathered together in associations, must take into account the common good of the Church, the rights of others, and their own duties toward others.
Canon Law on the rights of the laity:
Can. 2012 §2. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.
§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.
Can. 213 The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments.
Can. 214 The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church and to follow their own form of spiritual life so long as it is consonant with the doctrine of the Church.
Can. 215 The Christian faithful are at liberty freely to found and direct associations for purposes of charity or piety or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world and to hold meetings for the common pursuit of these purposes.
Can. 216 Since they participate in the mission of the Church, all the Christian faithful have the right to promote or sustain apostolic action even by their own undertakings, according to their own state and condition.
Can. 217 Since they are called by baptism to lead a life in keeping with the teaching of the gospel, the Christian faithful have the right to a Christian education by which they are to be instructed properly to strive for the maturity of the human person and at the same time to know and live the mystery of salvation.
Can. 218 Those engaged in the sacred disciplines have a just freedom of inquiry and of expressing their opinion prudently on those matters in which they possess expertise, while observing the submission due to the magisterium of the Church.
Canon Law on protections owed to the laity:
Can. 219 All the Christian faithful have the right to be free from any kind of coercion in choosing a state of life.
Can. 220 No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy.
Can. 221 §1. The Christian faithful can legitimately vindicate and defend the rights which they possess in the Church in the competent ecclesiastical forum according to the norm of